The Way We Green Speakers Series: Food Cultures for Sustainability

The Way We Green Speaker, Raj Patel

Sometimes a new perspective is all it takes to provoke us to think and act differently.

When I planted my garden last year, my goal wasn’t to grow enough food for year-round consumption. It was to make at least one delicious, nutritious meal from every seed type I planted.  Perhaps not a lofty goal, but if you knew my gardening skills, you might think differently.  And, after listening to a recent lunchtime speaker, perhaps my goal-setting wasn’t too far off the mark.

Despite the frigid temperatures on January 30th, Raj Patel received a warm welcome from Edmontonians on his visit from California. Patel addressed a crowd of over 100 at a lunchtime event at City Hall, part of The Way We Green Speakers Series.  The City of Edmonton was able to bring Patel here because of a partnership with the University of Alberta’s Office of Sustainability and others.

His presentation was titled, “Food Cultures for Sustainability.”  I wasn’t too sure what that meant, but like most of us, food plays an important role in my life, not just for nourishment and health but also as part of social gatherings with family, friends and colleagues. Think about it, when someone shows up at a meeting with home-baked goods, excitement ensues. When the peas and carrots are ripe for harvest from my garden, I pick and freeze them – those that I don’t eat right away anyway – with sheer pleasure.

Patel’s presentation was energetic as he told stories and relayed information in a passionate and knowledgeable manner.  He commended Edmonton for its many farmers’ markets, including the ones that exist year-round, and even when the temperature makes us believe that the only type of vegetable available is frozen.  He praised the City for developing fresh, Edmonton’s Food & Urban Agriculture Strategy.

Patel spoke about Russia banning wheat exports in 2010 and the impacts that had on the world.  He expressed dismay about the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board.  He shared stories about a landlocked country in South Africa—Malawi—and its economic struggles and how it has regained some traction in its efforts to produce food.  He talked about how the division of work between genders in their culture has created health issues for the very young. In an attempt to fulfill all those chores that a mom traditionally performs, combined with her duty to harvest crops, the health of infants is suffering.  Men in their culture are now working together to adjust to their new roles, sharing recipes and learning to be comfortable with cooking pots.  Through local efforts that rely on the expertise of thousands of farmers, they are growing shade trees in Malawi to improve production because, he said, photosynthesis stops at 104oF.  Who knew? I tucked away that piece of information as a need to know as we encounter hotter weather as part of global climate change.

Patel spoke about how shifting the outcome can achieve better results. For example, instead of focusing solely on an outcome of increasing food yields, improving health might be a better goal.  If we focus on improving health, then we look after the soil, we shield those who harvest the food from direct sun by working under shade trees, and we might establish community programs to share how food is harvested and prepared.

Both genders and all ages can be involved in growing and enjoying food when improved health is our greater purpose.  The outcome helps to change how we view and conduct our activities. Several times, Patel reminded us that pleasure and fun can incite change.

Patel’s thoughts provoked us to think about our desire and demand for more choices, whether in a grocery store or in a restaurant.  And if it’s offered, and only a couple of people buy it, then what happens to the rest of it that nobody wanted to eat?  While we seem to have more choices than ever, there is some irony in that.  Soft drink companies, for example, will take up prime shelf space and offer pretty much the same thing, but in different colours, or a slight change in ingredients, or levels of sugar or sodium, to make us think we have plenty of choices, while they actually control what we choose.  It’s an interesting way to look at a grocery store shelf.

Patel urged us to be organized in our efforts, and to rediscover the joy and pleasure of eating in season and in place.  We need to make it part of our culture to adapt to our local conditions and ensure we eat nutritious, local food year-round.  While the carrots in my deep freeze may not be in season, I grew them in my garden.  And although my beets provided for just one meal, my amateur gardening skills don’t prevent me from trying to make local food part of my culture.

Check our out next speaker in The Way We Green Speakers Series.

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About the Author
Heather Wheeliker
Heather Wheeliker works in the City�s Office of Environment engaging staff and citizens in improving environmental understanding and motivating us to move Edmonton closer to becoming a sustainable and resilient city.
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